Author Reports Libraries Dead; Libraries Say the Report is Exaggerated

The Evanston Public Library. Photo: Margaret Flynn

You’d think an author whose books are some of the most borrowed in the library systems of the United Kingdom would appreciate the institutions that got him over six thousand pounds in income for the circulation of his books.

But Terry Deary, bestselling children’s novelist in the UK, wants everyone to know that “libraries have had their day.”

In an interview with The Guardian on February 13th, Deary made it quite clear that library systems were robbing authors of their rightful dues. He wants the 180,000 pounds he’d surely be getting without interference from those money-sucking libraries.

I would have written a more timely response to this interesting view, but I was too busy reading China Mieville’s The City and The City. Which I borrowed from the Northwestern Library.

Anyway, once I’d finished that, I got around to examining Deary’s remarks, and they were about as laughable as you might expect. According to Deary, “Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat.”

I’m touched by Terry’s plight, truly. He’s probably withering away as I write due to the copies of his bestselling books in public circulation. Yet I can’t help but be skeptical of his claim that the lending of books from public libraries is hurting his book sales. For one thing, this is a man that’s sold over 25 million books, according to a 2012 article. I know that the world economy isn’t in great shape, but with numbers like that, I doubt he’s struggling to make ends meet.

For another thing, libraries can actually lead people to buy books. When I was a fledgling bookworm growing up in Massachusetts, I checked out and read every volume of Nancy Drew from our local library. My relatives soon realized that I was one of Nancy’s biggest fans. Lo and behold, on subsequent birthdays and Christmases I would receive shiny new books detailing the latest in Nancy’s adventures.

Now it’s possible that my aunt and grandmother were conducting secret book heists to get those stories, but on the whole I think that’s unlikely. Odds are they paid for them in a legitimate and upstanding business transaction. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been so single-minded about checking out the books.

But times have changed since I was a little girl. So on Wednesday afternoon, I decided to head over to the Evanston public library and evaluate its state of life.

From Deary’s remarks, I was expecting the equivalent of a ghost town where the librarians had cobwebs on their glasses and skeletons were slumped in the stacks. To my surprise, there were a good 50-60 people scattered throughout the library. I should clarify that they were all alive and well. I even saw a young boy ask the clerk at the reference desk a question (there were no cobwebs on her glasses that I could see), and she immediately led him to the book section he required. Hardly the customer service I was expecting from an “irrelevant” entity.

I had initially planned to ask people what brought them to this outmoded institution, but most were reading. Since I consider the interruption of reading a crime against human decency, I left them to it. From the overall absorption of the readers, who ranged from quite old to very young, I’m going to guess they would have taken exception.

But I still wanted to know if libraries “did nothing for the book industry,” “cut authors’ throats,” and “gave nothing back.” So I called up Courtney Robinson, Development Director for the Illinois branch of Jumpstart, a program whose focus is to give children in low-income neighborhoods greater access to books and literacy.

She laughed when I told her about Deary’s remarks.

“They definitely are still relevant,” she said. “A lot of these families don’t have the resources to go out and purchase books. Libraries keep books accessible and provide literacy opportunities for communities.”

So do libraries give nothing back?

Courtney was adamant that they do. “They give back in terms of the opportunity to have access to books. Especially people who may not be able to afford to purchase or download them.”

Deary sees that as completely unreasonable, saying that people expect to pay for entertainment. But libraries have more than just entertainment. If Courtney’s experience is anything to go by, they provide resources for information, access to thought that might otherwise be denied. They provide places for people to read and spend time together. The Evanston library alone has a father/son book club and pre-school story time, not to mention a host of events that have encompass all kinds of learning, such as an opera lecture series.

It’s hard to put a price- or an expiration date- on a place like that.

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